For a progressive state, Oregon is woefully backward when it comes to campaign finance laws
By Herbert Rothschild
As many of you know, Ashland.news recently secured IRS recognition as a 501(c)(3) public charity. Before, it was under the fiscal sponsorship of Peace House, to whom AN is grateful. Now AN supporters can make tax-deductible gifts directly to this non-profit.
It’s a common misunderstanding that public charities can’t be involved in politics. Americans generally equate politics with contests for elective office. As I explained in a previous column, however, rightly conceived, politics is closer to what we call civic life. Ashland.news is all about civic life. It was founded because civic life deteriorates in cities that lack a steady source of trustworthy local news.
Regarding what IRS rules allow and forbid public charities to do, the operative term is electoral politics. If they choose, they can advocate for issues and even for legislative bills and ballot propositions (within certain spending limits). But they must not support candidates for elective office or political parties that put forward candidates.
Which doesn’t mean that public charities must stay at arm’s length from elections. To understand what is permitted, think of what the League of Women Voters does. It registers voters, but without regard to party affiliation. It holds candidate forums, but it has to invite every candidate running for the office(s) the forum focuses on. And it often publishes information about candidates’ positions on certain issues.
In this column I make some observations about current campaigns in Oregon and locally. Mostly it’s reporting devoid of judgment. And I’ll emphasize that nothing I say in my columns necessarily reflects the views of Ashland.news, any more than it did when I was writing Relocations for the now-defunct Daily Tidings.
One distressing aspect of the campaigns this year is the huge donations from single individuals and political action committees (PACs). The most publicized have been those of Portland-based Phil Knight, who made his fortune with Nike footwear and clothing. It’s been reported that he gave nearly $4 million to Betsy Johnson, who is running as an independent for Oregon governor. Last week, perhaps because polls showed Johnson running well behind Republican Christine Drazan and Democrat Tina Kotek, he donated $1 million to Drazan’s campaign.
Closer to home, our state senate district, No. 3, is considered purple and a possible pick-up for Republicans, who would like to end the Democrats’ supermajority (18-12) in that chamber. Significant money has poured into Randy Sparacino’s campaign. Using ORESTAR, the Secretary of State’s site where campaign contributions and expenditures are reported, I counted 23 donations of $1,000 or more to Sparacino’s campaign since Sept. 19, four such to Jeff Golden’s campaign. Golden’s four were $1,000 each. The largest to Sparacino’s was $137,500 from Bring Balance to Salem PAC, listed as an in-kind donation that I would guess was spent by the PAC on ads. Phil Knight’s $1 million was the largest recent donation to that PAC. The Medford Chamber of Commerce PAC made two donations to Sparacino totaling $45,000.
For a progressive state, Oregon is woefully backward when it comes to campaign finance laws. Two years ago, 78% of Oregon voters approved a ballot measure that removed from the state constitution language that barred the legislature from enacting campaign spending limits. Since then, Salem lawmakers have failed to pass enabling legislation. Republicans tend to oppose limits, but the blame must fall on the Democratic leadership. They are unwilling to endorse any bill that puts limits on labor union donations. That is shameful hypocrisy.
Too much of the money, especially money spent by PACs independently of the candidates’ campaigns, is funding negative ads. That has become true of the governor’s race. In our state senate race, the attack on Golden for supposedly making racial slurs in a book he wrote decades ago was particularly sleazy, since the racial slurs weren’t his, but those of racist Southerners who opposed the work he was doing on behalf of black sharecroppers in Georgia, which was the subject of the memoir.
The Mail Tribune used to punish local candidates whose campaigns went negative. It was admirably consistent and non-partisan in this regard. Two instances I remember: It faulted Dave Dotterer in his second challenge to incumbent State Senator Alan Bates on that ground and endorsed Bates. Then, after Bates suddenly died in 2016 and Alan DeBoer and Tonia Moro vied to fill the vacancy, the paper rightly faulted Moro for an attack ad on DeBoer and endorsed him. Thanks in part to the Trib, campaigns in our area have been marked by decency until this year.
Thursday, the paper ran an editorial about the Golden ad, condemning its distortions and the outrageous demand by Justin Hwang, the state Republican party chair, that Golden resign over it. The editorial exonerated Sparacino from responsibility for the ad, but it didn’t fault him for not repudiating it, despite noting that Jessica Gomez repudiated a similar attack ad against Golden when she ran against him in 2018. And the editorial declared that the paper was making no endorsement in the race, simply endorsing clean campaigning. That seems to be as close as the Trib under its current leadership can come to honoring its proud legacy.
There are four propositions on the statewide ballot this election; all are important. Measure 111 would declare that access to affordable health care is a human right under the Oregon constitution. Measure 112 would remove old and offensive language from the constitution that authorized the use of slavery and involuntary servitude as forms of punishment for crime, and less symbolically, would allow judges and probation and parole officers to order alternatives to incarceration. Measure 113 would disqualify state legislators for re-election if they absent themselves from 10 or more floor sessions without permission, which would prevent future walkouts. Measure 114 would require a license plus certified training and a background check to purchase a firearm, and outlaw high-capacity magazines.
When your election booklet arrives, be sure to pay attention to these ballot measures. The booklet will contain arguments pro and con for each. For what it’s worth, I think we will all benefit if all four measures pass.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at firstname.lastname@example.org.